Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world.
Last Sunday, April 14, but in 1775, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage came to life in Philadelphia with the assistance of the Quakers and the philosophical backing of Benjamin Franklin and his fellow Deist, Thomas Paine. It was Paine who had published in the same year a pamphlet opposing slavery, entitled African Slavery in America. The idea of ending slavery was slowly taking hold among the pagans of Rome when the Empire collapsed in the West. In fact, the transformation of slavery to serfdom, which was slavery without the more humane aspects it had acquired under the pagans, was a Christian innovation. What about Islam? Arab-Muslim dealers eagerly sold slaves to Spanish and Portuguese (Christian) buyers. The American Baptist, Methodist and Anglican churches owned a total of 600,000 slaves. Nowhere in the Bible is slavery even remotely condemned as a profound evil. When civilization turned against slavery at last – in Britain in 1833; in the US in 1865 – it was with the guidance of thinkers like Paine and Franklin and John Locke. It took the rise of Rationalism and Freethought, and the gradual realization that without a social policy the churches would become irrelevant, to elicit action from people on their knees.
Last Monday, April 15, but in 1452, Leonardo was born in the town of Vinci, Republic of Florence, in what is now in Italy. It is from his birthplace that he is known as Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo “of” Vinci). He seemed to master every subject to which he turned his attention: he was a painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer, wrote poetry and stories: the prototype Renaissance man! Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495-97) and Mona Lisa (La Gioconda, 1503-06) are among his most popular paintings from the Renaissance. He and his rival Michelangelo did great service to the medical arts with their accurate paintings of dissections, which were only occasionally allowed by the Church.
And what of Leonardo’s religion? It is significant that at the end of his life he felt he had to atone for much spiritual negligence. His first biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote in 1550, “Finally, ... feeling himself near to death, [he] asked to have himself diligently informed of the teaching of the Catholic faith, and of the good way and holy Christian religion; and then, with many moans, he confessed and was penitent; and ... was pleased to take devoutly the most holy Sacrament, out of his bed. The King, who was wont often and lovingly to visit him, then came into the room; wherefore he, out of reverence … showed withal how much he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done.” There was much skepticism in Renaissance Italy at the time, and Leonardo was an intellectual genius, not just an artistic genius. While there was great intellectual freedom during the Italian Renaissance, there were limits as long as the Dominicans, the “Hounds of the Lord,” were active. This semblance of a deathbed conversion, by so critical a thinker and so great a genius as Leonardo, who would have nothing to lose by professing piety all his life, could mean that during his prime years he was a secret freethinker.
Last Tuesday, April 16, but in 1844, the French writer, critic and Nobel Laureate Anatole France was born. The writer began as a journalist and married a mentor wealthy enough to allow him to work hard enough to get him noticed by 1881. His most famous work, Penguin Island, in 1908, was a satire set in the mythical land of Penguinia, substituting penguins for humans – as Orwell’s Animal Farm substituted animals for people. It poked fun at the foibles of mankind, the Church, and government. In his 1914 Revolt of Angels, France portrayed an angel converted to free thought through exposure to Epicurean philosophy! All of France’s novels, in addition to lampooning clerics and Christianity, were unabashedly pagan. In the 1920s his writings were put on the Index of Prohibited Books. It was Anatole France who said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” And also (perhaps thinking of religious belief), “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” At a 1904 International Congress of Freethinkers at Paris, France said, “The gods advance, but they always lag behind the thoughts of men…. The Christian God was once a Jew. Now he is an anti-Semite.” France was elected to the Académie Française in 1896 and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.
Last Wednesday, April 17, but in 858, Pope Benedict III died in Rome. He had been elected in 855. The period in which Benedict lived is known popularly as the Dark Ages, and the dark fact is that, from about 500 to about 1000, when the pagan epic Beowulf appeared, not a single piece of literature was written that anyone but a medieval scholar reads today. The age of cathedrals was nearly 300 years in Benedict’s future and the Renaissance a distant dream. And it won’t do to say that the age only appeared dark because there is little documentary history on which to judge it: that’s precisely the point! That respectable modern historians shy away from the term Dark Ages (sæculum obscurum – it is plural only in English) may be true, but the term was coined by a Catholic historian, Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607). Benedict was no great scholar, and his three-year custody of the keys of Saint Peter was unremarkable but for his efforts to curb the excesses of the likes of a powerful subdeacon named Hubert. And in this we get a window on the gross barbarity of Europe when everybody went to church. Writing to all the archbishops and bishops of France, Benedict said:
…we hear that the cleric Hubert ... is sunk in such filth that he has no share in eternal life. ... he does not scruple to spend his days with actresses, women who ruin souls and bodies and drag them down to the lowest depth ... and that he is for ever committing murders and adulteries, vile fornications and intolerable outrages. And not only this but we have many witnesses that he has debauched the monastery of St. Maurice … The resources that once supported servants of God are now squandered upon whores, hounds, hawks and wicked men.
Was Hubert’s conduct uncommon? In fact, he was a member of one of the highest noble families in France and brother of the Queen. Monk-chroniclers of the time tell us that half the prelates were so “worldly” – more interested in gold and girls than God – that statutes had to be passed barring clerics not just from having female housekeepers: these housekeepers could not even be a mother, a sister or an aunt! Indeed, there were stories circulating about Hubert’s less-than-holy relationship with his royal sister! Benedict was said to have been the successor of the legendary “Pope Joan,” although that story has more satire than sincerity to it. And you might assume that even the existence of such a story is a sign of his times.
Last Thursday, April 18, but in 2008, the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed was released in the United States. Actor and co-writer Ben Stein hosts the film as if there is some kind of debate between the proposition that life on earth was the design of some unnamed intelligent designer vs. the theory that life evolved through undirected, natural processes. He charges that several academics have been “expelled” for challenging “Big Science” on the issue, that is, for daring to take the Intelligent Design side. If Expelled were an honest documentary, Stein and his production team would not have stopped with the claims of the supposedly “expelled,” but would have learned that the reason these scientists are no longer working in academe is because they failed to actually do science! If Expelled were an honest documentary, and Intelligent Design really is a scientific theory rather than a religious doctrine, then Stein and his production team would have stayed far away from pointing out the atheism of several high-profile evolutionary scientists. If Expelled were an honest documentary, and Stein and his production team were sincere in their assertion that Intelligent Design is a competing theory to Evolution, deserving of debate in academia, they would have spent at least a few of this film’s 90 minutes giving us an idea of what the Intelligent Design theory actually explains. Expelled does not state a theory for Intelligent Design, or raise one testable claim, or identify the Designer. And if we admit an Intelligent Designer, then there’s no need for science! Intelligent Design is a science stopper! In the end, with its dishonestly edited quote from Charles Darwin, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed portrays itself as a voice crying in the wilderness. It is instead an insincere, factually challenged polemic in the form of a whiny complaint. The film should have been subtitled, “No Intelligence Displayed.”
Yesterday, April 19, but in 1993, U.S. federal government forces with tanks, gas and guns invaded the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. During the 51-day Waco Siege, “Ranch Apocalypse” was burned to the ground and 76 Davidians, twenty of them children, along with their 33-year-old leader, David Koresh, died. The mainstream media had dutifully demonized this offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Davidians were variously reported to be narcotics traders, child molesters, and a suicide cult, and their leader David Koresh was portrayed as a gun-crazed prophet with delusions of Christhood. No one mentioned the Davidians’ multiethnicity, their status as a new religious movement, or their victimization in the Drug War. Because Koresh had preached about the apocalypse, the compound was prepared for a long siege. Or a long pogrom.* But is not at all clear that the Davidians desired to die in an auto-da-fé, or even that they set the flames that immolated their own home. The confrontation between the male-dominated, gun-toting government officials and the male-dominated, gun-toting Davidians began on Sunday, February 28. Waco stands today as a massive breach of civil rights and an abuse of government power against a relatively harmless Christian sect. If it can happen to minority Christians, in this nation of churchgoers, are atheists safe?
*The Russian word погром pogrom (with stress on the second syllable) is a noun derived from the verb громи́ть gromit', meaning “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.”
Today, April 20, but in 1999, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, brought guns and explosives instead of textbooks to school. The bullied and belittled students had planned their massacre for over a month and timed it for Adolph Hitler’s birthday (see below). After their rampage, which left 12 students and a teacher dead, perhaps like Hitler, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took their own lives. It is rather slippery to claim that the incident that has come to be known simply as “Columbine” constitutes some message from God that our nation has strayed from the path of righteousness. The U.S. is a violent society to begin with: other industrialized democracies don’t have the problems we seem to have with kids and guns and random violence (think of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Newtown, Conn., in December 2012) – nor such a small but powerful lobby terrorizing our leaders with weapons of mass distraction into betraying the will of the people into deregulating arms in America. Nevertheless, the massacre was seized upon by the religious and even propagandized by the parents of two student victims, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, who (it is claimed) courageously proclaimed their faith in God when the gun was pointed at them. In the end, the truth is more mundane and less comforting: Dylan and Eric were avenging years of ridicule, social ostracism in school, facilitated by easy access to guns. As for Cassie and Rachel, their God was nowhere to be found when they needed help to save their lives.
Other birthdays and events this week—
April 18: American trial lawyer Clarence Darrow was born (1857).
April 20: German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who was definitely not an atheist, was born (1889).
We can look back, but the Golden Age of Freethought is now. You can find full versions of these pages in Freethought history at the links in my blog, FreethoughtAlmanac.com.
Read about peace activist Bertha von Suttner, the Treaty with Tripoli, the religion of Alexander Bain and Hugh Laurie, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, the religion of William Butler Yeats, adding religion to the Pledge of Allegiance, condemning Martin Luther from a glass house, and more …